The genetic structure of the Alpine marmot, Marmota marmota, was studied by an analysis of five polymorphic microsatellite loci. Eight locations were sampled in the French Alps, one from Les Ecrins valley (n = 160), another from La Sassière valley (n = 289) and the six others from the Maurienne valley (n = 139). Information on social group structure was available for both Les Ecrins and La Sassière but not for the other samples. The high levels of genetic diversity observed are at odds with the results obtained using microsatellites, minisatellites and allozymes on Alpine marmots from Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Strong deficits in heterozygotes were found in Les Ecrins and La Sassière. They are caused by a Wahlund effect due to the family structure (i.e. differentiation between the family groups). The family groups exhibit excess of heterozygotes rather than deficits. This may be caused by outbreeding and this is compatible with recent results from the genetics of related social species when information on the social structure is taken into account. The observed outbreeding could be the result of females mating with transient males or males coming from neighbouring colonies. Both indicate that the species may not be as monogamous as is usually believed. The results are also compatible with a male-biased dispersal but do not allow us to exclude some female migration. We also found a significant correlation between geographical and genetic distance indicating that isolation by distance could be an issue in marmots. This study is the first that analysed populations of marmots taking into account the social structure within populations and assessing inbreeding at different levels (region, valley, population, and family groups). Our study clearly demonstrated that the sampling strategy and behavioural information can have dramatic effects on both the results and interpretation of the genetic data.
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